We’re proud to collaborate with some of the best food people in our cities. We produce our own products in small batches in our regions, so it’s only natural for us to support others who are creating some of the best stuff out there. Two of those makers: Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez of Compass Coffee.
We partner with Michael and Harrison to bring you a steaming cup of locally roasted coffee at our Reagan Airport (DCA) location, where we provide an exclusive breakfast menu experience to align with the busy schedules of our traveling customers.
We sat down with Michael and Harrison at their bustling Shaw location recently, and we wanted to share a few of our favorite moments from that conversation:
Let’s start from the beginning: How did you get into the coffee business?
We became friends in the Marines. The entire Marine Corps runs on coffee — it’s a ritual. It’s a reminder of home when you’re out on the field. We were deployed in Afghanistan and one of the things we looked forward to was getting together after a long day or a long mission, and just having a cup of coffee with the other guys and kind of decompressing.
It was always just really, really bad black coffee. It was really more about the people you were sharing it with than it was about the coffee. With some of our missions, we were running at night. So it’s first thing in the morning — let’s say it’s 6 am, sunrise — we’ve just gotten back, hopefully everyone is safe, and in one piece, and then we’re debriefing over cups of coffee.
That camaraderie around that awful coffee really isn’t that unique to the two of us either. So many men and women have that story coming out of the military — coffee is that important part of their experience.
So for us when we think about coffee, it’s a lot about community and it’s a lot about people. Of course, now, the coffee has to be great, has to be delicious — but there’s so much more that goes into it as part of our experience.
How did you get from initial ideas about coffee to actually launching a business?
After deploying to Afghanistan together and having the coffee ritual together the whole time, when we left the service, we came home to DC and were like, “Alright, what are we going to do? What do we love? What do we know?” The answer was unequivocally coffee.
No one was roasting coffee in DC the way we wanted to see it, so we decided we were the guys to do it. And here we are.
Really the first thing was learning how to roast coffee. Our original sample roaster was a small machine, so there were hundreds and hundreds of batches of, like, little 4-ounce, 6-ounce, batches of coffee. We were just trying to develop our style, and the coffee that we wanted to taste. We were doing this in my [Michael’s] parents’ basement for about a year.
Was there a “this is it” moment?
Nope. It’s such an incremental and frustratingly slow process. The next thing after learning how to roast coffee was learning how to maintain equipment. Our first espresso machine was one of the best out there, but we still had to learn how to put it back together when it broke; how to dial it in so the coffee tastes right; and then how to scale that up to commercialized applications. It was a lot of learning by doing.
The reason we had to learn about fixing espresso machines was because our first one, which we spent a significant amount of money on, broke. We were a few months into the formation of Compass Coffee, and here’s our brand new espresso machine, and it’s already misbehaving.
So what do we do? We go into problem-solving mode: What parts do we need, where do they go, what do we take out, what do we put in? Basically, how do we get this done so we can get back up and running? That taught us a lot about the types of situations we might face when we got up and running.
When did you start thinking you were going to actually open a shop?
The first thing we did was buy a roasting machine. It’s a big stainless-steel thing. And the lead time for that was like nine months. So we had to order the machine before we had a lease signed. So we ordered it and decided we’d just figure out the other steps by the time it arrived. We were supposed to be flying out to San Francisco to meet the manufacturer.
The week before we went out there, we had actually visited the place where our first Compass Coffee location is now located. It was an old laundromat, not the nicest spot at ALL. We found out that it had been leased. And then when we were out near Sonoma visiting the roaster manufacturer, we got a call saying that the place was available after all, but we had to send in our offer that day.
We hadn’t been at the site in like four months. We were learning about coffee, learning about repairing the machines, looking for locations. We got that call though, and we said, “Let’s just do it.”
So we went for it. Pretty soon, we had a lease. And that’s when the clock started ticking. That was the summer of 2013. It took about a year and a half to get everything ready, and we opened in September of 2014.
We had to find an architect, design the space, submit the permits for approval. One thing that’s pretty awesome about our roaster is that it’s so environmentally friendly — it reduces carbon emissions by 85%, it barely sips on natural gas, it recycles the air so it’s more sustainable, all the right stuff.
What was the biggest surprise in opening up the first location?
[Jokingly] There were no surprises. It was so smoothly.
Ok, for real, one thing we didn’t see coming was, midway through the project, we fired our contractor. We basically wound up taking over the project ourselves. We poured the cement for our countertops, learned how to weld, made all the café furniture. We had to learn electrical, we had to learn plumbing, we had to learn how to weld a gas line.
And we also learned a lot from that first buildout. We learned the ins and outs of everything, so we’ll know when things aren’t going right next time.
Why did you want to work with CAVA? Which blends are you providing for our DCA location?
Well, for starters, we eat at CAVA maybe six or seven times a week [laughs]. We each get two bowls and eat them as fast as we can, always getting extra lamb.
Everything with what CAVA’s doing lines up — from quality sourcing to quality build-outs to quality people.
We want to work with people who care about the food, who care about the producers, who care about the customers, and what their experiences are like. We’re very excited about working with CAVA.
The coffee we’re roasting for CAVA varies depending on seasonality. We’ve been providing the Cardinal and the Waypoint lately. The Cardinal is a medium roast, kind of chocolatey and nutty. And the Waypoint is a dark roast. We’re always trying to roast a coffee that pairs well with CAVA’s breakfast menu at the airport.
What is your go-to at Cava?
We get the same thing. We’re all about efficiency and nutrition. Half supergreens, half white rice, then all of the veggie toppings. One scoop of harissa, double lamb. Sometimes the grilled veggies. And then the Greek vinaigrette.
We’re into variety generally speaking, but for some reason, not around food. We’ve basically been eating the same thing at CAVA for two years now. Sometimes we switch up the meat, adding the meatballs.
How has travel contributed to your brand?
As much as we want to be locally focused, coffee isn’t grown in America. Alex, our roaster, just go back from visiting some places in Hawaii, and Harrison’s been down to Columbia and South Asia. So there’s a significant amount of travel that has to go into our sourcing.
There are so many companies that say one thing and do another, and we’re adamant that’ll never be us. So when we’re talking about the sourcing, the roasting, the relationships with the other companies we work with, we’re incredibly focused on ensuring we’re doing something good and something sustainable. And that we can continue to uphold that as we grow. We’re always thinking about things like quality, price, ethics, sustainability — and we think you can have all of those things if you’re committed and detail-oriented enough.
How did you come up with the name Compass Coffee?
We went through about 200 different names trying to figure out what we would call ourselves. We wanted something that was real and true to our story, and also emblematic of how we see coffee. We talked about the camaraderie, but also how it’s the first thing that many people do with their day.
We kept going through our list and we eventually came back to how all of this started: We became friends when we were learning to navigate with a map and a compass in Afghanistan. It was there all along.
And our coffees are all named for DC neighborhoods, or their directions. They’re related to this idea of movement, from getting from Point A to Point B. Each of them came about because they’re real, they’re true to us, they’re who we are. And they’re what the company is about.
What’s the next big step for Compass?
We’re really focused on the idea of “Made in DC.” You see it on our bags, on our tins, on the wall. Coffee is about community. We want to work with good businesses that are doing good things, so we can really build a better city.
Next steps for us? The new roastery that we’re building. It’ll be about ten times the size of our original café location. Right now, we have to do everything manually. We lift the 150-pound coffee bags and have to add them into the roaster. As we’ve grown these sorts of tasks are taking away from the things that could be done better elsewhere.
So we’re excited about the space the new roastery will provide us, but we’re also excited about creating more efficient practices and, ultimately, better service and better coffee. In the new space, we have close to 10,000 square feet — it’s pretty much a coffee storage bunker. We also have this thing called the Strong Arm, that can lift the bags of coffee for us. We’re super excited about the technology we’re leveraging.
There’s this idea that roasting needs to be manual to be good, but we’ve found that it’s just the opposite. There’s an incredible amount of technology that people aren’t using, and we’re seeing the positive results of taking advantage of those tools. The proof is in the cup.
How do you take your coffee?
Black. Quickly. In large quantities.
We have a sort of morning ritual where we both come in, and it’s early, so we have a few expressos. We’ll start off with that — kind of as as quality-control thing. Then we’ll do a round of French press, usually the Waypoint or the Azimuth blend. If it’s nice out, then we’ll have a cold brew.